March 19, 2015

Collaboration Key To Technology Growth, Industry Leaders Say

Chris Cox  /  Charleston Regional Business Journal

Bobby Hitt understands South Carolina's technology movement. The Commerce Department secretary sees it every day in his own family, with his youngest son working in the coding field.

"We're starting to see this grow, we're starting to see this move," he said. "These are people who are coming to work with flip-flops on with their laptop. And they're generating and working on contracts worth millions of dollars."

Growing the number of those flip-flop-clad workers will come through further collaboration, Hitt and other area technology leaders said Wednesday during IT-oLogy's annual IT Summit. "This is not about reinventing the wheel, it's not about being redundant," said Lonnie Emard, IT-oLogy president. "We've got to be smarter about what limited resources we have. ... Everybody is picking their piece that is a niche and saying, 'You do this well, I do this well.' What happens when we connect those dots?"

That ideology is starting in the school systems and working its way up to the business level, said state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman. Companies such as Boeing approached education leaders asking for more characteristic development than mere content knowledge, she said, with desired traits ranging from collaboration and problem-solving to punctuality, proper work attire and peer-to-peer interaction.

The state education system has instilled a variety of approaches to teach those skills. Schools are incorporating STEM learning –- a hands-on problem-solving technique that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math –- and one-to-one computing, which gives each student an electronic device for access to the Internet and course materials.

"When you walk in a real progressive classroom, you don't see all the students sitting in rows anymore," Spearman said. "You see them engaged, collaborating around tables, on projects on the couch."

Those skill sets will allow students to transition into the technology workforce with greater ease, Hitt said. That is essential for a state that is the nation's top producer and exporter of tires and No. 1 exporter of automobiles, he added.

Hitt said the number of information technology jobs in South Carolina has increased by 45% over the past decade, with the need and demand for STEM-educated students to grow by 100% in the next three years.

"We're collaborating from the state, to the counties, into the school districts and beyond," he said. "We're having an impact. And having an impact is what we all need to be thinking about doing."

"Twenty years ago, kids in this state coming out of high school weren't thinking about careers in complex manufacturing or complex business," he added. "Today, kids coming out of high school never knew a time where BMW wasn't here."

These collaborations are helping to grow the industry statewide. Rock Hill Economic and Urban Development Director Stephen Turner touted the area's Knowledge Park, a new hub for knowledge economy businesses, while Greenville lauded the upcoming Next High School, a technology-centered, collaborative charter school opening this year.

Bill Kirkland, the University of South Carolina's executive director in the Office of the Economic Engagement, showcased the school's new applied computing minor, part of a statewide initiative, and the new innovation centercreated alongside IBM and Fluor.

The industry also continues to grow in Charleston, where the technology field now makes up 5% of the regional economy, according to Ernest Andrade, the founder and director of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation. Over 300 tech companies now call the area home, with 45% of them currently hiring at wages almost two times the regional per capita.

The city of Charleston's two largest occupants of commercial space are also tech companies: Blackbaud and Benefitfocus.